This paper, based mainly on astronauts’ first-person writings, historical documents, and my own ethnographic interviews with nine astronauts conducted between 2004 and 2020, explores how encountering the earth and other celestial objects in ways never before experienced by human beings has influenced some astronauts’ cosmological understandings. Following the work of Timothy Morton, the earth and other heavenly bodies can be understood as “hyperobjects”, entities that are distributed across time and space in ways that make them difficult for human beings to accurately understand, but whose existence is becoming increasingly detectable to us. Astronauts in outer space are able to perceive celestial objects from vantages literally unavailable on earth, which has often (but not always) had a profound influence on their understandings of humanity, life, and the universe itself. Frank Wright’s term, the “overview effect”, describes a cognitive shift resulting from seeing the Earth from space that increases some astronauts’ sense of connection to humanity, God, or other powerful forces. Following NASA convention (NASA Style Guide, 2012), I will capitalize both Earth and Moon, but will leave all quotations in their original style. The “ultraview effect” is a term I introduce here to describe the parallel experience of viewing the Milky Way galaxy from the Moon’s orbit (a view described reverently by one respondent as a “something I was not ready for”) that can result in strong convictions about the prevalence of life in the universe or even unorthodox beliefs about the origins of humanity. I will compare Morton’s ideas about humanity’s increased awareness of hyperobjects with Joye and Verpooten’s work on awe in response to “bigness”, tying both to astronauts’ lived experiences in order to demonstrate the usefulness of ethnographic data in this context, discuss how human experiences in outer space might influence religious practices and beliefs, and suggest that encounters with hyperobjects hold the potential to be socially beneficial.
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